Rice bowls — a type of dish known as donburi — is a venerable tradition, as old as sushi and much more common than kaiseki.

Share story






For years I’ve been having lunch at Hana Sushi on Broadway. The sushi is fine, but I go for the gyudon, also known as beef-don: thinly sliced beef with onions and teriyaki sauce over a big bowl of rice.

Think of traditional Japanese food, and sushi will probably come to mind. Or perhaps kaiseki-ryori, the intricate multicourse meals that originated with the Japanese tea ceremony.

In fact, my rice bowl — a type of dish known as donburi — is a venerable tradition, as old as sushi (both, in their modern forms, date to the 19th century) and much more common than kaiseki.

There are a variety of standard donburi meals, but improvisation is encouraged. Eager to know more about donburi on its home turf, I e-mailed Rob Ketcherside, a Microsoft employee who transferred from Redmond to Tokyo in 2006.

“I’ve had donburi twice this week so far,” he wrote back. (It was Wednesday.) Some of the biggest fast-food chains in Japan specialize in donburi, he added. The most popular, Yoshinoya, has been serving its beef-don in Tokyo since 1899, beating McDonald’s to the Japanese market by 72 years. “A restaurant usually just has donburi as a presentation of whatever their specialty is,” Ketcherside says. “A chicken place will have chicken donburi, one soba place might have oyakodon, another might have pork-and-onion-don.” Later, Ketcherside e-mailed me a photo of his third donburi of the week, mentaiko-don (spicy pollock roe, nori and shiso leaf). I doubt anyone is serving that one in Seattle, but these five are ubiquitous at our Japanese restaurants:

Tendon: No tendons are harmed in the making of this rice bowl — it’s tempura with a soy-based sauce over rice.

Gyudon: Beef bowl. A variation, tanindon, cooks the beef with egg.

Unadon: Barbecued eel over rice. If you feel, as I often do, that unagi sushi just doesn’t give you enough eel, this is the answer. It’s also the single easiest donburi to make at home, because you can buy frozen barbecued eel at Asian groceries — although at the time of writing, Chinese eel imports are restricted, so hold that thought.

Oyakodon: “Parent-and-child bowl,” so called because the rice is topped with chicken and egg. I had a tasty oyakodon recently at Kozue in Wallingford.

Katsudon: Breaded pork cutlet with egg. Frankly, I don’t get why you would want to fry your cutlet and then make it soggy with eggs, but I guess veal parmigiana is like that, too.

When I was a kid, one of my staples was Japanese curry from a bowl.

It’s great stuff, as comforting in its own way as macaroni and cheese from a box. (The most popular brand of boxed curry in Japan is Vermont Curry. Really. It’s available at Uwajimaya.) Serve it over a bowl of rice and it’s a classic donburi.

So is chirashi-zushi, slices of assorted fish over a bowl of vinegared rice, an easygoing form of sushi that deserves to be better known. A simplified version is tekka don, with raw tuna, soy sauce and sliced scallions — a snap to make at home.

You’re getting the idea, I hope, that donburi is a style of eating, not just a list of permissible formulas. Korean bibimbap? Kozue, which serves a spicy tuna version, considers bibimbap a donburi.

So does Mineko Asada, author of “Rice Bowl Recipes,” which offers more than 100 donburi recipes — everything from the basics to Doll’s Festival Rice Bowl, made with whimsical seaweed and fish cake cutouts.

A rice cooker makes it easier to get into the donburi groove, but it’s not required. The rice should be medium-grain Japonica rice, such as calrose. “Keep in mind the properties of regional rices and choose according to preference,” advises “Rice Bowl Recipes.” Ignore this advice at your peril. Just kidding.

Oh, and the name? “Donburi” is simply Japanese for “bowl.” You’ll find all manner of bowls large enough for your own donburi experiments at Uwajimaya, Ranch 99, H Mart or the Asian restaurant-supply stores in the International District. But my favorite — call it East-West fusion — is the $5 Bistro Bowl from Crate & Barrel.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Recipe: Oyakodon

Serves 1

Dashi is Japanese stock, made from kelp and bonito flakes. It’s easy to make (Google it, or look in any Japanese cookbook), and dashi concentrate is available from Asian and some Western groceries. This recipe multiplies well.

2 cups hot, cooked rice

3 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced

2 scallions, sliced

1 large egg, beaten

Sauce

½ cup dashi

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon mirin

1. Place the rice in a large individual bowl. Combine the dashi, soy sauce, sugar and mirin in a skillet and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

Add the chicken and scallions (reserving a bit of scallion for garnish). Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken just loses its pink color.

2. Add the egg, stir well to combine, and cover the pan. Cook until the egg is set to your liking, no more than about 1 minute. Pour the chicken mixture over the bowl of rice, garnish with remaining scallions and serve immediately.

— Adapted from “Rice Bowl Recipes,” by Mineko Asada